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Iran, Saudis on Collision Course over Yemen


Smoke billows during an air strike on the Republican Palace in Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz April 17, 2015.
Smoke billows during an air strike on the Republican Palace in Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz April 17, 2015.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to escalate Saturday, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani slamming Saudi-led airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

"You planted the seeds of hatred in the hearts" of people in the region, said Rouhani at Iran's National Army Day ceremony, in comments directed at Saudi Arabia. "And you will see the response sooner or later."

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, previously called the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen a "genocide" and a "crime." Iran is believed to back the Shi'ite Houthi rebels with both military and financial support, but denies doing so.

Humanitarian assistance

Following more airstrikes Friday, Saudi Arabia pledged Saturday to provide the entire $274 million the United Nations requested for emergency humanitarian assistance in Yemen. The U.N. says at least 150,000 people have been displaced and more than 700 have died since the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes three weeks ago.

"This contribution demonstrates the kingdom's commitment to help the fraternal Yemeni people," Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, the Saudis' U.S. ambassador, said in a statement.

The Houthis took control of the capital, Sana'a, in September. They then swept southward, forcing Western-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee.

The rebels are allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted as part of the so-called Arab Spring protests in 2012.

Iranian peace plan

Also Saturday, a government spokesman said Yemen had rejected a four-point peace plan for the country that Iran submitted to the United Nations.

The Iranian plan urges an immediate cease-fire and an end to all foreign military attacks. It also calls for humanitarian assistance, a resumption of broad national dialogue and "establishment of an inclusive national unity government.''

"We reject the Iranian initiative,'' Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said in Qatar's capital, Doha. "The goal of the initiative is only a political maneuver."

Western and Arab diplomats in New York have shown little interest in the Iranian plan, saying they do not consider Iran a neutral peace broker in Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition carried out bombings in several cities Friday, including Sana'a; the country's second-largest city, Taiz; and the southern port city of Aden.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida has been capitalizing on the chaos in Yemen to strengthen its stronghold in the country's east. On Friday, al-Qaida fighters overran a key army camp in the capital of Hadramawt province, Mukalla. Officials said the group seized tanks, rocket launchers and small arms.

Diplomatic efforts

Also Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone with Saudi Arabia's King Salman. The White House said the two leaders agreed on the need for a political solution for Yemen that is facilitated by the United Nations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Thursday for an "immediate cease-fire" in Yemen.

In a speech in Washington, Ban warned Yemen was "in flames" and said the only resolution was for "all sides" to stop hostilities and take part in negotiations.

"The United Nations-supported diplomatic process remains the best way out of a drawn-out war with terrifying implications for regional stability," he told the National Press Club.

Earlier this week, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Morocco-born Jamal Benomar, left his post after failing to bring the sides together for peace talks.

Diplomatic sources said Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed could soon be named as Benomar's replacement.

The Saudis and many of their coalition allies reportedly were frustrated with what they saw as Benomar's soft stance toward the Houthis.

Ban has not commented on Benomar's replacement, but the U.N. chief said Thursday that the Saudis had assured him they understood "there must be a political process."

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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